Programming Krabby: How to win with a bot

May 11, 2022

What began as an interest in Legos has now become a full-fledged passion for robotics for one Dartmouth High student.

Jack Kertscher, now a senior at the high school, has been involved in helping program robots for around four years. He said he was first inspired when toying around with one of the Lego robotics kits in the seventh grade.

“I’ve always loved Legos,” he said. “Eventually I realized the robotics part of it was fun too.”

From there, the Dartmouth youth joined the middle school’s robotics club, before joining the high school club and the Southcoast Corsairs — a three-member competitive team that builds and showcases robots around the region.

“It got bigger very fast,” Kertscher said of his robotics journey.

Recently, the Corsairs competed in Springfield’s Big E Coliseum at the FIRST New England Regional Championship with fellow robot enthusiasts Cody Raposa and Jonathan Lawrence.

The trio were part of the three-team alliance with crews from Connecticut and New Hampshire that won the whole competition, making them New England champions.

“It took our team a long time to get here,” Kertscher said. “We were not expecting to do that well — it was surprising and really gratifying for all of our work over the past few months. That was an all-time best.”

For this year’s tournament, the team worked on a robot named “Krabby the Kraken” designed to shoot balls into a hoop. 

At the end of the competition, there was also a challenge to get a robot to use monkey bars. Although Krabby was limited to doing pull ups, he was still a step ahead of his creator.

“I definitely cannot [do them],” Kertscher said with a laugh. 

Preparations for the tournament began in January.

Raposa, a Voc-Tech student, was responsible for the design and electronics of the robot while Lawrence, who attends New Bedford High, assembled the automaton.

Kertscher, meanwhile, was responsible for programming the machine primarily using Java — a scripting language used to make things like web pages, apps, and even control robots. He also used some pre-existing snippets of code from the Worcester Polytechnic Institute to build a framework to guide Krabby.

“It was a long process,” he said.

The Dartmouth resident said he has been coding since he first began robotics back in seventh grade.

He said what he likes most about programming is the problem solving aspect, which comes up quite a bit when trying to make a robot operational.

While there can be a lot of pressure to make a bot work, the Dartmouth High senior said it’s best to stay positive and solve any issues as they arise.

“You’re never 100 percent sure what you’re doing is going to work, but you need to keep telling yourself it will,” he said. “Otherwise, you’ll just keep troubleshooting and never stop and it will never get done.” In fact, he said that mentality was something he needed when working on Krabby, especially.

“It was a bit temperamental,” he said. “It loved breaking at the worst times possible.”

Kertscher noted that in the practice match before the grand finale at the Springfield tournament, Krabby was experiencing performance issues.

“Our driver could barely control it,” he said.

As the team was preparing to showcase the robot, the Dartmouth teen said he immediately scrambled to troubleshoot Krabby.

“It was a bit stressful, but it turned out okay,” he said. “I deployed the code in time and the robot worked great, obviously.”

Despite the last-minute hiccup, Kertscher said this last big tournament as a high schooler was easily his favorite.

“Getting out there in-person and being on the field — there’s nothing like it, it’s a ton of fun,” the Dartmouth resident said. 

Kertscher, a graduating senior, is committed to Hamilton College in Upstate New York where he will study computer science. He said he hopes to explore other aspects of programming such as artificial intelligence and cybersecurity.

“Really I’ll see what I like most,” he said.

Unfortunately, he said there is no robotics team at the school, although he said that won’t stop him from trying to find the time to continue his passion.

“Even if it’s just a research project, I’m not leaving [robotics] forever,” Kertscher said with a smile.